Part mystery, part family drama, Zhanna Slor’s At the End of the World, Turn Left is a thoughtful examination of how we carry our history with us.
The novel focuses on two sisters, Masha and Anna. Masha, who is in her mid-twenties, has returned home to Milwaukee from Israel at the behest of her father to look for Anna, who has disappeared. Masha escaped her home country in the hopes of forging her own path abroad. To tell the story, Slor bounces back and forth in time, weaving together Anna and Masha’s first-person narratives. Though the sisters share some similarities, Slor gives them both a unique voice and personality. Masha is tough, untrusting, and smart, and she loves to play with language. Anna is more carefree, artistic, and innocent, though she has a strength that Slor carefully unveils throughout the novel — and that readers will come to admire.
As Masha searches for Anna, the reader is introduced to Riverwest, “an eclectic but semi-dangerous neighborhood of Milwaukee full of artists and musicians.” Quickly, Masha finds herself pulled between the Israeli world she came from, with a stable partner and a deep religious practice, and the world she gave up, with its past loves, edgy drug culture, and immigrant parents and grandparents.
The central mystery of the book, besides Anna’s fate, relates to a stranger from the Old World who messages Anna on MySpace (another relic from a forgotten past) with a secret. She claims to be the half-sister of Anna and Masha and wants Anna to convince her father to take a paternity test to prove it. For most of the novel, Slor keeps us in suspense about what Anna will do with this information, and readers are left to guess whether this revelation is indeed the reason for her disappearance.
Slor uses the story of Masha and Anna’s possible half-sister to explore the complicated legacy of immigration. In one moving scene, Anna expresses a desire to go back to the Ukraine, only to be met with dismay from her grandparents. The older generation wants a clean break from their past, whereas Masha, and especially Anna — who came over as a baby from the Soviet Union — want to uncover what they left behind when they migrated.
Just when the readers think they know what has happened to Anna, or how Masha will deal with it, Slor has another revelation around the corner. Few novels can be suspenseful, funny, and thought-provoking all at once, but Slor’s has all of these qualities and more. Particularly as a debut work, At the End of the World, Turn Left is a feat.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.